A while back a freelancer who was writing a story for a parenting magazine about breaking the pacifier habit called to ask if she could just quote the other moms in her toddler’s playgroup.
Greg Lindsay and I talked about the same practice last week for an article he posted today on Media Bistro. Lindsay admits the family he used for his anecdotal lede in a January Advertising Age Online piece was his girlfriend and her parents. (You have buy the article, but you can see the top of it in the link). He was on deadline when he realized he needed an anecdotal lede. They were the perfect family, he said.
I get asked this question about once a month. I suspect journalists are more tempted to dig into their social circles for sources because of the increasing demand for stories that target a niche audience, as well as stories about trends, pop culture, and the many ways technology is changing the world.
Quoting one’s friends can have disastrous consequences, as it did last year for Brad Smith of The Tampa Tribune. After he was busted for changing the facts of a social outing into the lede for a story (He and some friends were at a bar when an acquaintance discovered the car she’d borrowed for the evening had been towed. He helped her track it down. Later when he wrote a story about the behavior of private tow truck operators, he used the anecdote but changed the events so that the car’s owner was the person who left the bar to discover her ride missing. She was justifiably pissed off at the insinuation that she was out drinking on a night when she had been home in bed and called to complain.) A check of his previous work turned up several instances where he quoted friends, including one person who told another reporter that she gave Smith carte blanche privilege to make up quotes. Smith no longer works at The Tampa Tribune.
Whenever an editor who suspects a reporter for plagiarism or fabrication calls me and asks how she should proceed, I always suggest an immediate investigation into past stories. Those investigations often turn up questionable sourcing practices, including quoting friends and family. Plagiarism and fabrication are sins of sloth. So is quoting your friends.
But more often, quoting one’s friends has minor consequences that over time accumulate as an assault on your credibility. Whenever your pals show up in your work, a small number of people in the audience will be wise to the connection. For those in the know, it may seem like you have duped the readers.
You also are likely to experience conflicting loyalties. Your friendship may cause you to paint a rosier picture of your friend than you would of other sources. Depending on the subject, you might ignore bad grammar, illegal behavior or plain old stupidity. Your friends would most likely expect to look good in your article, if they agreed to participate.
So even if you aren’t making stuff up, when you quote your friends you cheat your audience. Although our work is often informed by our personal experiences, it doesn’t have to be limited by our personal boundaries. One of the greatest joys of being a professional journalist is we get paid to meet people we would never encounter in our private lives. Difference, whether it’s rooted in race, religion, sexual orientation, political philosophy, economics, family background or geography, makes journalism rich.
There are easy solutions, of course. Say your daughter’s soccer coach is the absolute best possible example of the beleaguered volunteer in a today’s competitive world of children’s sports. Or your mom is the typical senior trying to navigate the Medicare drug plan. Say you can’t find a better source, either through good old shoe-leather techniques (you know, leave the office, go to a likely place and make cold calls on strangers) or the modern-day networking wonders of the Internet. You could reveal the connection to the audience, by slipping into first person, magazine style. You could write a column or a reported personal essay. Or you could turn the story and the source over to another journalist, who might some day return the favor.